Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wake In Fright, by Kenneth Cook

Wow! You have to read this book, especially if you’re Australian or come from a country that has a nihilistic drinking culture and high suicide rate. I read this riveting page-turner in two sittings. One half in the morning with my cup of coffee, and the other half in the evening. The novel is written in a taut, economical prose that has a menacing, suspenseful atmosphere. You just keep waiting for the next bad thing to happen, and wonder how bad it will be.

Wake In Fright chronicles five days spent by school teacher John Grant in the outback mining town of Bundanyabba, or ‘The Yabba’ to locals. Grant was only to spend one night in the town before catching a flight to Sydney for his holidays, but gets waylaid by a bout of gambling and drinking. Losing all his money, he finds himself destitute. Not to worry though, in Bundanyabba there are always men ready to buy you a beer.

In fact, you could almost say that beer is almost one of the main characters in the novel. Everyone drinks and drinks and drinks. It made me sick just contemplating all the drunkenness.
Here’s my favourite quote on the subject. Page 142:

"Peculiar trait of the western people, thought Grant, that you could sleep with their wives, despoil their daughters, sponge on them, defraud them, do almost anything that would mean at least ostracism in normal society, and they would barely seem to notice it. But refuse to drink with them and you immediately became a mortal enemy. What the hell?"

The scenes describing a drunken gang on a kangaroo shoot are amazing and terrifying. Again, alcohol plays a major part.

"Being drunk is warm and soft and there is no pain and it does not really matter about the kangaroos that are shot and breathe horribly and disappear in the night, or about little kangaroos that you cut to pieces before they die.

Grant killed many kangaroos that night and once even made a disastrous attempt to eviscerate one before he was sure it was dead; and it flopped about with its entrails spilling.

Everyone laughed, and they laughed again because Grant was covered in blood and they drank all the whisky and all the beer and their shooting became wilder.

Someone fired a bullet through the roof of the car and someone else fired one through the windscreen, and everyone laughed again."

None of the men eat the meat, except for the creepy alcoholic doctor Tydon, who we are led to believe is a closet homosexual. Tydon takes care to always cut off the testicles of the kangaroos, put them in his pocket and save them for later eating. He claims they are the best bit to eat. The meat is actually used to feed their dogs, being ‘too gamey’ for human consumption.

In a later scene, Grant is sexually molested by Tydon, and remains forever polluted by this experience. Again, this happens after a night of nihilistic drinking.

Words cannot express what an amazing book this is. Media reports today talk about Australia’s drinking problem, especially with its youth and culture of binge drinking.

This book so fundamentally resonates that it could have been written today, and still be considered shocking, cutting edge literature. Anyone who has grown up in Australia and found themselves at a barbecue or party or pub with the slabs of beer piled high and the men drinking and drinking and laughing and turning red in the face from all the booze, will recognise so much of the culture described in Wake In Fright.

This is a truly shocking book. More shocking is that it was published in 1961, during Menzies’ long reign. I thought that period just produced genteel tea parties and men in suits going to boring office jobs.

This is the kind of Australian literature that leaves all other Australian novels in the dust, as far as I’m concerned, bringing out into the open a heart of darkness never discussed in Australian life.

Forget your Helen Garners, your Tim Wintons and David Maloufs. Here’s the real deal.

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